Why Political Attacks on Elite-College Leaders Should Come as No Surprise
The politician strides confidently to the stage, a grin creasing his famous face. He wastes no time on trite words of appreciation for the crowd, but launches right into a stemwinder of a speech, denouncing those who have “brought shame on a great university.” He reaches inside his suit jacket, flaps open a few sheets of paper, and goes on to describe “incidents” happening on campus “so contrary to our standards of decent human behavior that I cannot recite them to you in detail.”
The solution? Administrators should tell faculty
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The politician strides confidently to the lectern, a grin creasing his famous face. He wastes no time on trite words of appreciation for the crowd, but launches right into a stemwinder of a speech, denouncing those who have “brought shame on a great university.” He reaches inside his suit jacket, flaps open a few sheets of paper, and goes on to describe “incidents” happening on campus “so contrary to our standards of decent human behavior that I cannot recite them to you in detail.”
The solution? Administrators should tell faculty members to comport themselves properly or be shown the door. “If scholars are to be recognized as having a right to press their particular value judgments,” he says, “perhaps the time has come also for institutions of higher learning to assert themselves as positive forces in the battles for men’s minds.”
This isn’t a 2024 political rally, despite the rhetoric. It’s from a 1966 speech by an ascendant politician named Ronald Reagan, who was embarking on a successful run to California’s governorship, buoyed by his repeated attacks on the University of California at Berkeley.
Political attacks on American higher education didn’t begin with Reagan. For more than two centuries, politicians and preachers have been condemning colleges, claiming they are leading the country astray. In many cases, the attacks have targeted occupants of the president’s office. The successful campaign to unseat Harvard University’s Claudine Gay over allegations of plagiarism is just the latest in a long chain.
“It is a tradition,” said Adam Laats, a professor of education and history at the State University of New York at Binghamton. “Part of the tradition is to be surprised by it.”
Laats likened the feeling that higher education is too liberal to a chronic illness that lingers in America’s bloodstream. It can lie dormant for years, but times of stress — bad economy, the Cold War, Trump’s presidency — pop it back to the surface. That’s where America is today, he said.
Consider statements from politicians like Congresswoman Virginia Foxx, Republican of North Carolina and chairwoman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce: “Postsecondary education is in a tailspin. There has been hostile takeover of postsecondary education by political activists, woke faculty, and partisan administrators. College campuses are a breeding ground for illiberal thought.”
That rhetoric carries echoes from over two centuries back. The earliest attacks came against universities and their presidents for shifting away from their traditional religious underpinnings — including at Harvard, where in the early 1800s, professors with what traditionalists called Unitarian views were being appointed to the faculty. By 1810, Harvard was firmly Unitarian, moving away from its Calvinistic roots, which prompted traditional ministers of the era to call for the president to be fired. Modern evangelicals still refer to that period as the start of the liberalization of higher education, Laats said.
Perceived liberalization provoked a reaction. In the early 20th century, Harry Woodburn Chase, president of the University of North Carolina, came under intense fire from legislators to expel professors with so-called liberal beliefs, which they were accused of imparting to students. The fire also came from unexpected sources, including in the 1930s when the National Association of Manufacturers bragged about sending “spies” into classrooms at Columbia University to take notes on what professors were saying and then broadcast the information to its members.
Reagan made his criticism of Berkeley one of the main points of his winning campaign. Soon after he took office — on January 20, 1967 — the university system’s board voted 14 to 8 to dismiss Clark Kerr, who had been president since 1958. While the firing was nominally about Kerr’s refusal to make deep budget cuts, it was widely understood to be part of a broader referendum about the university’s direction.
“There were six regents who had already developed their doubts about me,” Kerr said in a 1997 interview with the Los Angeles Times. Reagan “came in and brought in eight other votes. It wouldn’t have happened without him.”
Acknowledging the forces that doomed his presidency, Kerr also said in a statement that he believed board members had a duty “not to respond too quickly, and too completely, to the swirls of the political winds.” He added: “I do not believe in the principle that because there is a new governor there needs to be a new president of the university.”
Politicians often test-drive their messages about the broader course of society by focusing on higher education, said Teresa Valerio Parrot, founder and principal of TVP Communications, who advises various presidents and institutions across the country. “It often serves as a lightning rod,” she said.
And political figures have learned over the years there is little risk to attacking higher education and calling for presidents to be fired.
“As long as there are political rewards for these types of attacks, I don’t think they will stop,” said Michael Harris, a Southern Methodist University professor of higher education who studies college presidents. “The worst case is you don’t get your sound bite. The best case is you get your viral moment.”
Where are our leading university presidents who are standing up for higher education and forcefully making the case for it and willing to get fired for doing so?
Although higher education has been used as a political foil for centuries, experts said there is a key difference between previous eras of pushback and the present day. “Where are our leading university presidents who are standing up for higher education and forcefully making the case for it and willing to get fired for doing so?” Harris asked. “That seems to be a piece that is missing. You don’t see a lot of presidents, in a very sophisticated way, making a case for higher ed. They are more politically cautious.”
Part of the reason for that may be found in the increasing turnover and shrinking length of tenure for today’s presidents. “They don’t have the relationships needed” to stick their necks out and know they have protection from a board or politicians, Harris said.
Yet history suggests the hot-seat era will wane sooner or later. “Will it get better eventually? Certainly,” Laats said. “Is it going away? Never. There will continue to be outbreaks.”